MOVIE REVIEW: Computer Chess (available now on DVD and Netflix Instant)
Science fiction godfather Isaac Asimov once wrote, “Part of the inhumanity of the computer is that, once it is competently programmed and running smoothly, it is completely honest.” And in another passage, he wrote, “We’re forever teetering on the brink of the unknowable, and trying to understand what cannot be understood.” These two quotations summarize the highly indefinable movie Computer Chess, directed by Andrew Bujalski and released today on DVD.
A little background might be helpful, since this is one of the rare movies when going in blind could make the experience overwhelming and perplexing. Bujalski, for the uninitiated, is a prominent independent filmmaker whose films are characterized by highly improvised dialogue, naturalistic settings, and little known or amateur actors. Because of the low budget and the lo fi recording style, sometimes lines overlap and conversations are partially inaudible. Some may find this infuriating; to Bujalski, the specifics of dialogue are often not as important as the overall feeling you get from a scene. His past movies include Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, both of which find humor and pathos in awkward interactions between people. Basically, he makes movies that don’t feel like movies but rather like windows into the characters’ every day lives.
Computer Chess tweaks the Bujalski formula on a number of levels. For starters, it’s filmed in black and white with vintage camera equipment from 1968—glitches and all. The vintage equipment adds another layer of authenticity, because this film is set circa 1980 and is filled with the now-antiquated technology of the era. Additionally, while the dialogue and actors feel naturalistic and improvisational, there’s a heightened aspect to certain scenes, and elements of both science fiction and surrealism at play, creating an augmented reality. Rather than solely focusing on human interaction, this movie is interested in human interaction with machines.
So let’s get to the story, as well as I can explain it in a few sentences. The movie takes place at a budget hotel, where a group of students and entrepreneurs have gathered for a computer chess tournament. These highly competitive, socially awkward people each have something to prove; they’ve spent hours and hours coding and testing their respective chess programs. They cloister themselves away from the general population, finding solace in the consistency and predictability of formulas where specific inputs always result in specific outputs. Some of these people are being recruited by government programs and corporations; others are just so enamored of the possibilities afforded by technology. Nowadays, it’s fashionable to call oneself a geek or nerd; but in the early days of the computer age, that was not the case. One gets the feeling this tournament is one of the few places these folks can comfortably be themselves around other humans. It’s telling that the host of the tournament keeps exclaiming joyfully over the presence of the first ever female competitor.
Elsewhere in the hotel, another group of people is attending a sort of spiritual retreat for couples, led by an eccentric guru claiming to be from Africa and importing various tribal practices and ideas for the betterment of these mostly middle aged American couples. Worlds collide when several chess tournament participants come into contact with the seminar people, leading to several of the film’s most hilarious moments.
These are the basics; but this movie is so much more than it seems. A character says at one point, “Everything is not everything. There’s more.” This is probably the most important line in the movie (even Bujalski has acknowledged this in an interview with Vice.com), and gets at why even though I find most of the film distancing and even confusing, I still really liked it. I can’t help but be intrigued at what hidden meanings are lying beneath this circuitous story’s surface.
I can’t say for sure whether you’ll find the movie compelling. I can see how many people might be bored, confused, or both. But if you’re willing to spend 92 minutes in a black and white time machine to a subculture few people got to see up close, this movie will give you that experience. It will leave you questioning the things that separate man from machine, and wondering which one is truly superior.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that this movie features a lot of cats, which naturally bumps it up a notch in my estimation. Basically, I really just want other people to seek out this weird little film and tell me what they think it means, because I can’t stop thinking about it.